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'Shrek' and the Shtetl

May 17, 2007 By:
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Will the rest of the summer film season be ripped to "Shrek" once the green ogre with shofars for ears opens this Friday?

More important ... to some ... will the fairy-tale figure with a Scottish burr finally give in to his natural heritage and resort to spit-takes of "ch"?

And just how does one say "don ... key" in Yiddish?

"Shrek," the most valuable piece of swamp-land property sold to the public since Florida first opened its gates to buyers, has a special relationship with Jewish audiences -- whether they know it or not.

After all, how many mainstream megamillion blockbusters bear Yiddish titles? ("The Dybbuk Does Dallas" doesn't count.)

Yes, Virginia, "Shrek" is Jewish -- or at least, Yiddish, since his name is the perfect paean to what it means to be a "monster."

Monster hit, anyone?

Ugly Betty? Ugly Bubbie! Looking like a piece of halvah left out in the rain so long it accumulated moss, Shrek from the shtetl is a mouthful, a sight for tsuris eyes whose background is not so much Grimm as geshrei. Here is a cartoon character more Jewish than Cartman.

If DreamWorks is making book on "Shrek 3" to pull them out of the muck and mire this summer, they're not the only ones paging him for success. Indeed, at the National Yiddish Book Center, in Amherst, Mass., not normally known for its attention to Hollywood movie mania, there's an exhibit hall named in honor of the DreamWorks giant: "Hofenung un Shrek --Hope and Fear."

Of course, those at the center will tell you that in the hall, "we explore the social and political ferment that swept through Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century, and the remarkable literature it produced. Our displays reflect both the revolutionary optimism and the dark forebodings of the period: literary society in Warsaw and Vilna, shattered promises in the Soviet Union, the heroism of Yiddish writers and scholars who risked their lives to chronicle the Nazi occupation, and, finally, the post-war Memorial Volumes that chronicled a world that had been destroyed."

Doesn't sound like something Fiona has on her shelves. But then, in "Shrek 3," she's pregnant, and doesn't have time for heavy lifting.

But William Steig certainly did: He's the author of Shrek!, the 1990 book of pictures -- not the moving kind -- that started it all. And there's no doubt that the man acclaimed as "King of Cartoons" had a comic-strip sense of humor in naming the character in a language he grew up knowing and loving.

Indeed, the mamaloshen was a lotion for the soul for this Brooklyn-born son of Jewish Polish immigrants, whose later work for the the New Yorker spanned close to three-quarters of a century and almost 2,000 drawings.

Is it not bashert -- which Steig, who died in 2003, would appreciate -- that "Shrek 3" is coming out during the year of the author's centennial celebration?

Indeed, the writer/cartoonist and Yankee doodler dandy was no museum piece, so vibrant were Steig's works. Yet, if he's going to be celebrated by a museum, who better than the vibrant Jewish Museum of New York to do it? Which they will with a special centennial exhibit beginning this fall.

And, yes, Shrek -- what would the exhibit be without this exhibitionist? -- will be part of the action. A centennial? May he live to be 120!

Not that everyone's waiting. The mitzvah mobile that is Steig's birthday seems to have Jewish wheels -- and they're headed to Broadway, where Jewish groups will most likely be among the many paying the green to welcome the green guck of a character to the Great White Way.

That's right: "Shrek: The Musical" is anticipating a Broadway run. And for those who think they stink -- that fetid aroma may scare off dates but in an ogre it's an aphrodisiac -- here's what they're looking for during a casting call this summer (when this casting notice went up, most likely so did the call for cans of green paint):

Shrek: 20s--30s. An ogre. His brutish physical appearance disguises a warm heart. Values his peaceful solitary life in the swamp. A lonely outsider with soul and strength, and wit. Seeking actors with a powerful presence and strength with true Rock or R&B voices.

Surprisingly, no previous klezmer background was called for.

But if your idea of "My Yiddishe Momma" is someone from the swamp-land, this may be your lucky daze. There is even a url for you: iwanttobeshrek.com.

But what kind of songs will they be looking for from Shrek wannabes? Some helpful hints may lie in the Yiddish punk-rock repertoire. When you hand the sheet music to the rehearsal pianist, be sure to add these words: "A bissel slow on the upbeat."

Of course, some of this sheet music may be hard to find. Anybody out there with the notable Marc Ribot number "Yo! I Killed Your God," a 1992 release from his group Shrek, released later by the Tzadik label?

No? Maybe this one will be easier to find since it comes from a traditional source: "The Best Yiddish Songs," recorded by noted artist Tzipi, whose version of "A Brivele Der Mamen," by Solomon Shmulewitz, had them choking back the tears on Orchard Street.

Okay, join in; all together now, follow the bouncing bubbelah ...

"Mayn kind, mayn treyst, du forst avek

Ze zay a zun a guter

Dikh bet mit trern un mit shrek

Dayn traye libe muter

Du forst, mayn kind, mayn eyntsik kind,

Ariber vayte yamen."

Rumor has it that the on-screen Shrek serenaded Fiona with not this version on his wedding night, but the Sanjaya version, which would have been recorded had the singer not been cut from "A Yiddishe Idol."

But Shrek certainly made the cut with the prominent Amos Tuck School of Business Administration of Dartmouth College. Who knew that ivy came in shades of Yiddish?

Well, it's not really the school but The Tuck Profit, a satirical send-up of a mag not associated with the school, but put out by some of its edgier business students looking for a night of 401(k) laughs:

For a read of top-notch business students' take on the future, take a look at this recent issue: "It's official! The president of the class of 2007 has changed his name from Savage to Shrek. In his own words: 'I think "Shrek" better reflects my personality, and is more consistent with my beliefs and ideas. People were a little freaked out by "Savage." '

"To Shrek's Yiddish friends, the choice may not be so effective: 'Shrek' means fear or terror in Yiddish. The kinder, gentler Shrek commented rhetorically, 'Do I care what a bunch of Hasidic Jews think about me?' "

"The Hanover town clerk was immediately inundated by over 350 name change requests from women seeking to change their names to Princess Fiona. The line extended around the block. Not surprisingly, 2nd year class president Tommy Cho's request to change his name to Donkey was immediately granted."

Some think the whole "Shrek" thing is ass-backwards. In Israel, where they've probably already issued a draft notice to the eligible hunk more familiar with the green line than most, not everyone thinks he's a fairy tale come true.

David D'Or wanted to show "Shrek" the door when the Hebrew- dubbed version of "Shrek 2" arrived in Israel after its 2004 release. Indeed, the Israeli singer, who bore the brunt of some public blame for Israel's failure to make it to the finals of Eurovision Song Contest, was none too trilled with one of the lines in the movie, insinuating that his falsetto voice struck a false note -- and that castration notices, not casting notices, were needed when one of the film's characters proposed doing a "David D'Or" on a colleague.

That line of dialogue ultimately was, uh, snipped.

Of course, if D'Or wanted to show "Shrek" the door, it can only be assumed that he won't have need to place this on it: a Shrek mezuzah cover made in Israel described by the Mezuzah Store (www.mezuzahstore.com) as "a wonderful way to make sure that your child loves their mezuzah and remembers it."

Some memorable snippets from an interview "Shrek 2" screenwriter David N. Weiss did with Aish.com after that film's release releases a whole bunch of Yiddishkeit soaring into the air.

As he told Rabbi Shraga Simmons, "a main theme" of the film came from what Weiss heard a rabbi say: "It's a definition of love: What's important to you is important to me. In the film, after Shrek marries Princess Fiona, he assumes he'll get to stay an ogre in the swamp. But Fiona's father (the king) begins scheming to get his daughter back to the palace.

"The king works on Shrek's self-esteem, making him feel like he's ruined this poor girl's life. And there's enough evidence to make Shrek, and even the audience, question that maybe that's true.

"At first Shrek feels very selfish about it, and just wants Fiona to be with him in the swamp. But then he has second thoughts: Maybe Fiona would have been happier as a princess, instead of the ogress that [he] turned her into. And because Shrek loves her so much, he wants to give her a 'happily ever after' potion and let her return to the royal life she deserves. Not because that's what's best for Shrek, but he wants it for Fiona's own sake.

"At the meetings with DreamWorks executives (many who are Jewish), now and then I would mention that this is a traditional Jewish idea. It's really a basic theme of the film, and I'm proud to have helped steer things in that direction. So through Shrek, some Jewish wisdom is getting out to millions of Americans."

But just what is the message to be sampled by this: Shrek is about to become assimilated by the American medium best suited to do so: TV.

According to reports, don't expect to see "Shrek the Halls" decorated with matzah balls. ABC is planning the half-hour Christmas special for this upcoming holiday season.

Well, it is hard to envision Shrek having the dexterity to spin a dreidel. Don't worry; he won't.

But then, there's always hope. With Jeffrey Katzenberg, who, with his DreamWorks teammates David Geffen and Steven Spielberg started this whole "Shrek" shrill-ride going in 2001, saying about the Christmas special that it "follows a natural storytelling path for us, and we're so happy to be partnered with ABC in expanding the world of Shrek into the television arena," maybe he'll be willing to explore other natural arenas.

Indeed, now that Shrek and Fiona are having a child -- okay, she hasn't converted; didn't like the idea of doing the mikvah thing in a swamp -- what could be more natural a sequel to give birth to than this:

"Shrek 4: The Bris -- the Mohel, the Merrier."


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